While expat friends returned to their various home countries over the holidays, David, his wife, and their two-year-old daughter headed to Xiamen for a Christmas weekend stay in the new Le Méridien Xiamen. Traveling with a toddler can be difficult under any circumstances, but it becomes a unique challenge in a new place. Fortunately, this traveling toddler absolutely loved exploring the car-free streets of Gulangyu... until it was time to slow down... >>>
Gulangyu, December 25, 2010, 12:32 pm
Our little Christmas angel's shrieks echoed off the charming cobbled streets and picturesque stone-and-stucco walls of Gulangyu.
"Bu yao bu yao BU YAO BU YAO!"
It's a beautiful place, Gulangyu Islet. My wife, daughter and I had stopped on a small, pleasant landing at the top of a steep, winding street which had been just wide enough for us to wheel our SUV of a stroller up. Two narrow cobbled lanes forked off at the top of the small square, leading up in one direction to the domed Xiamen Piano Museum and in the other into a charming hillside jumble of townhouses and villas dating from the 1920s and '30s. Trees and well-tended shrubs peeked over walls. Flowers and ornamental vines spilled from courtyards, dappling the pavement with shadow in the bright Fujian sun. We were in the midst of a scene that had certainly changed little since European and American traders, diplomats and adventure-seekers had roamed their garden islet sanctuary just off the coast of Amoy, the city now known as Xiamen.
"No! No! No! NOOOOOOOOOOOO!" Sophia screamed, switching to English just in case her Mandarin hadn't registered....
Our daughter had only ceased enjoying our family Christmas vacation perhaps ten minutes prior. For much of the morning, Monika and I had watched as Sophia had the time of her life, racing up and down streets blessedly free of cars (and motorcycles, scooters, and, amazing as it may seem for China, even bicycles).
Gulyangyu presented a kind of never-ending playground to her two-year-old self, and we were thrilled. All we had to do was let her wear herself out, and then Monika and I could have a nice seafood lunch and do some grown-up sightseeing while she slept off her active morning, right? It seemed like a good plan.
Sophia climbed stairs. She climbed walls. She said hello to the fish, shrimp and octopi living out their last hours in red plastic tubs on the pavement in front of hole-in-the-wall seafood joints. She said hello to the birds. She said ni hao to delighted Chinese tourists. She ran and ran and ran, with one parent scampering behind her and the other racing to keep up with the stroller a few meters back.
And then she got adventurous. "This way!" she'd call out, racing down a dangerously cluttered alley. "This way!" into a private laundry-festooned courtyard. "This way!" up uneven stairs and halfway through the door of someone's home. We'd race after, huffing "No... no... no! People live there! That's not Sophia's house! Let's go this way instead! Oh, look, more birds!"
Eventually, Sophia lost patience with our directives and rebelled. Overtired, over-hungry and yet, in the baffling way of small children that has tormented parents from time immemorial, completely unwilling to rest or eat, she met every "No!" we uttered with her own barrage of refusals. She was entering the dreaded tantrum zone, and there was little we could do but go along for the ride. It was the moment in the scary movie when the fun house turns into a house of horrors.
She wanted to go up that set of stairs, down another alley, into a crowded shop, no matter what... AND WE COULDN'T STOP HER! Except, of course, we could and we did, finally strapping her bucking body into the stroller. It was time for lunch, we said. It was time for a break, we explained. Wouldn't you like some yummy xia and mian mian, we asked, naming two of her favorite foods?
Bu yao xia! Bu yao mian mian! OK, OK... no shrimp, no noodles. We get it.
And so we found ourselves in a violent battle of wills there on picturesque Gulangyu Islet, on Christmas Day... and we appeared to be losing. Badly.
BU YAO DADDY! BU YAO MAMA! Uh-oh.
The scary movie shifted into its nightmare montage phase, the charming architecture of Gulangyu taking on a menacing air, the formerly cheerful crowds assuming a leering, grimacing aspect....
Smiling Chinese tourists passed in couples, women tittering, covering their mouths with one hand while demurely pointing with the other, eyes flashing from our two-year-old daughter to her harried American parents and then back to their accompanying husbands and boyfriends.
Much to the delight of a roving gaggle of teenage girls, Sophia let us have it in English one more time: "NOOOOOOOOO!" For good measure, she sent her beloved plush toy duck, Ya Ya, sailing into the bushes of the charming pocket garden built off the stucco wall of the 1920s villa behind us. Her pacifier followed, landing in a nice patch of fertile Gulangyu soil.
The teens slowed long enough to get off a few shots with their phone cameras, giggling.
I pressed my daughter tight against my chest as she twisted and kicked. I could only use my arms. She, however, put her whole body into the struggle and her 9+ kilos of angry muscle were almost enough to overpower her 90+ kilo father.
She let out one last "no!" and an emphatic "bu yao daddy!" before switching to a ragged hoarse-throated chant of "Down! Down! Walk! Down! Down! Walk!" accompanied by windmilling arms and spinning legs. I moved to let her down softly, but as soon as she got her feet on the ground, she hurled her tiny body backwards, back arching, body twisting. My grip on her upper arm was the only thing that kept her from either cracking her head on the pavement or shooting off on those spinning legs like a cannon-shot cartoon character.
"Ouch!" she hollered. Hollering in "pain" at the slightest touch—or even at the slightest intimation of a touch—is a favorite tantrum trick, and she worked it for all it was worth.
A Chinese lady in three-inch heels, a white leather skirt over leopard-print tights and a fake tiger fur vest captured the moment on her iPhone and turned to smile at her man-purse toting paramour. He grinned and nodded his head and took a nervous puff on his Double Happiness cigarette.
I knew what he was thinking, as he shot a glance at his girlfriend, who, somehow, found it all cute enough to lob a "hen ke ai!" in the direction of our child before leaving us to struggle anew before another yet another group of amused Chinese tourists. He was thinking that she wants her one child, even in the face of Typhoon Sophia, and he was thinking that he's doomed.
"Smoke 'em if you got 'em," I muttered just before my daughter landed a solid left hook to my nose.
Recovering, I turned to Monika long enough to get out a quick "Merry Christmas, baby" as she recovered the stuffed duck from the underbrush. She handed it to Sophia, who promptly whacked me in the face with Ya Ya, knocking my glasses askew. "Merry Christmas," she replied. Another couple passed, smiling and laughing.
We weren't laughing.
* * *
Eventually, my wife's wisdom prevailed and she convinced me that we'd be better off moving on than waiting for Sophia to lose strength while I put her in a fatherly sleeper hold.
Once back in the stroller (I received a good kick in the teeth in the process of strapping her in), she finally began to tire, fighting on gamely for another ten minutes with regular demands to be picked up (all of a sudden, bu yao! changed to her favorite "hold me" command, bao bao!, but we didn't fall for it).
By the time we've made our way up, down and back along a set of Gulangyu streets and lanes to a beautiful litte hill-top courtyard cafe that we'd noticed a few hours before—the Star Fruit Courtyard at the Yangtao Hotel—Sophia was fast asleep.
We carefully negotiated our way into a sunny corner, parked the stroller, sat down and stared at each other for a few moments in that way that only parents who have been through an epic tantrum can (it's a bit like the look the last surviving couple in the scary movie give each other after escaping, at last... until the sequel, of course).
We can heartily recommend the Yangtao Hotel's courtyard. The service was friendly and attentive, the music tasteful and mellow, the Gulangyu air fresh and clear in the gentle sunshine, and the flower tea, set in a glass pot over a candle warmer, was soothing and delicious.
When our expertly made sandwiches arrived, we devoured them and ordered another plate, along with a delicious Fujianese noodle soup that we knew Sophia would love when she woke up starving.
But for the moment, she slept on, an angelic look on her face.
"Merry Christmas," I said to Monika.
"Merry Christmas," she replied with a tired smile.
We laughed and, for that moment, at least, there was no place we'd rather have been.
Stay tuned for the rest of the series with tips on traveling with small children in China, what to do and see in Xiamen, and a profile of Xiamen's newest five-star hotel, Le Méridien Xiamen.